Review Summary: A wholesome bundle of satanic fun!
After taking just one look at the members of Ghost (and before you ask, no, I refuse to call them Ghost B.C.), with their concealed identities and hooded robes, one might expect this band's music to feature all of the various cliches of underground Black Metal, including echoey shrieking, harsh, dissonant guitar work, and pervasive ambience. I thought of these characteristics when was first told of Ghost by a friend who reads Fenriz's "Band of the Week" Blog, arguably one of the key things that sparked this band's rise to prominence. When I actually went to check out a few of their songs on YouTube, I was taken aback by the bands relatively melodic sound and hooky song structures. All in all, they brought up more memories of Blue Öyster Cult and Mercyful Fate than that of Watain or Mayhem.
That, however, was their debut Opus Eponymous. With the follow up, "Infestissumam", I wasn't really sure what to expect, and to be honest, the album did indeed turn out much differently than I had theorized. The ghastly group of ghouls still retain the retro sensibilities of their debut, but the range of styles and sounds is much expanded upon here, almost to the point that the word retro has a different connotation. Whereas the first record was "retro" in the sense that it attempted to directly emulate the sound of a late '60s/early '70s hard rock record, the old school feel of this record is more evident in the songwriting. The production on this second album is incredibly crisp compared to the first and definitely sounds more modern from a purely sonic perspective, but it feels almost as if the band completely tuned out of the music world around 1983 and weren't influenced at all by the music trends of the past 30 years. There's hard rock, shock rock, early doom metal, NWOBHM, and a hint of pop. I even feel a bit of prog with the short but sweet title track and the epic seven minute, multifaceted "Ghuleh / Zombie Queen".
The instrumentation on the album has also diversified. While the first album pretty much always relied on the standard guitar, drums, and bass setup with some keyboards thrown in here or there, this album features piano, a choir, a string section on "Body and Blood", ample helpings of Mellotron, and a much larger variety of synth sounds chosen by the band's keyboardist.
The other musicians are on their A-Game as well, although the guitars seem to take a backseat more often, with the keyboards and synths taking on the role of the lead melody much of the time. Even with less presence than on "Opus", the band's two guitarists still get a few moments to shine, such as the surf rock influenced solo on "Ghuleh" and the heavy thrash inspired riffage of "Per Aspera Ad Inferi". The bass is audible in all but the most densely layered moments on the album (a godsend in this day and age of metal), but unfortunately never really gets a chance to jump out and separate itself from the rhythm guitar tracks, and the drumming, while rather bland at times, is tight and never distracts from the meat of the song
Papa Emeritus II's vocals are pretty much the same as always, although he does offer in interesting hint at the rumored Tobias Forge connection with a few unexpected growls that one would be more familiar in an extreme metal environment. Besides that, he does a good job, offering a very confident and somewhat operatic performance without it being distractingly dramatic or flamboyant. The vocal lines are all catchy but memorable, and he succeeds in conveying the subtle sarcasm of the band's overall lyrics.
Speaking of lyrics, Ghost wouldn't be complete without incessantly paying tribute to the thunder from down under... Satan, that is. While all of the songs still feature the standard "Hail Satan" type stuff, I feel that it is a bit smarter this time around (or at least as smart as these type of lyrics can get), with some humorous satire of both Christians (especially in "Idolatrine") and of the stereotypical "HEVY METVHL RULEZ! SAYTUN WILL SODOMIZE YOUR SOUL IN THE 47TH CIRKL VF HELL!1! m/!1! STAY KVLT!" side of metal.
As far as standout tracks go, almost every other review of the record has brought up the centerpiece "Ghuleh / Zombie Queen". At 7 minutes , it's the longest track and features an obscene amount of genre roulette, starting with a soft ballad section, with big King Crimson style mellotron orchestration, which then transitions into a circus music style metal riff and drumming with the surf rock solo I mentioned previously and an epic chorus that is guaranteed to get some audience participation at live shows with thousands of people chanting "Black light guides you!". Other highlights are the title track, with its densely energetic composition and "Year Zero", which is a genre anthem if I ever heard one. Monstrance Clock is a great hard rock song that combines the best aspects of both "Opus Eponymous" and "Infestissumam", and it brings the album full circle, ending the record as it began, with the choir chanting a somber hymnal melody.
That's not to say that the whole thing is perfect. A few of the songs do drag on for too long and while I love the keyboard work here, I can definitely see why some people could be turned off by their increased prominence in each song, and unfortunately, this album does feature a master that comes dangerously close loudness war territory with some pretty audible distortion, especially during the intro of the aforementioned "Per Aspera Ad Inferi". Seeing as the album was produced by Nick Raskulinecz, who worked with Alice in Chains on "Black Gives Way To Blue", another album with completely smashed dynamics and clipping, this is definitely a possibility. Thankfully, the clipping here seems more of a consequence of a hotter recording rather than gratuitous compression and limiting, but it still should be noted as it adds some unwanted harshness to an otherwise smooth sounding production.
Ever since their inception and rise to popularity, there have been criticisms leveled at Ghost for their over the top Satanic image and their unashamedly retro sound for being gimmicky and shallow. While there certainly is an element of validity to that argument, I feel that the songs are great on their own and that with this release, a good amount of the supposed copying of older bands has been stripped away and more of an identity established. I can't really think of anything specific this band truly ripped off on this album, which brings me to another point regarding some of the criticisms leveled at Ghost. The theatrical and eclectic feel that this band throws at you is refreshing, but in this era of dead serious metal fans and musicians, eternally keeping yourself shoulder deep in your the exact same stylistic spot you started in is seemingly more important than just rocking out and having fun with whacky ideas and images, lest you incite the wrath of the Internet Metal Nerd Inquisition. This is definitely a much different album than "Opus Eponymous", and that may worry you at first, but just keep an open mind about it and let the sounds soak in. There is a big enough variety of styles that you should at least be able to enjoy one or two tracks even if the band's first outing didn't quite resonate with you.
Ghuleh / Zombie Queen
The title track